Rugged individualism, yes. Enthusiastic binging on entertainment, yes. Almost any personal philosophy however indulgent or magnificent has a loud voice in the public sphere. What we don’t talk much about is NOT doing something for the sole purpose of doing good by not doing. Maybe that’s the nature of our society, an inclination to DO which is all that much stronger when coupled with the energy of youth.
But here we are.
We are past the maybes and the I doubt its. This virus is real. This is happening. Millions will die. They will be young, old, strangers, and people we know. And while volunteers are desperately needed, what is most needed from every single one of us is that we stay home and keep our germs to ourselves.
How quickly we accept the need for this self-sacrifice will determine not only how many people die, but also how overwhelmed the hospitals get, and how much people suffer horribly from a lack of care.
The battle cry is getting louder. Stay Home. Save Lives. Stay home!
It’s worth acknowledging that what we are asking young people to sacrifice is not the same as what we are asking of an older person like myself. If I were to pause and reflect on all that I did in any single year of my twenties, this would be a much longer article, and probably a lot more entertaining. Now I wear a homebody badge with pride. But my twenties were (as they should have been) a time for fun, exploration, and forming social connections that are important to this day. The two most important friends in my life, people I speak to daily to navigate this crisis, are friends I made in my twenties.
And here we are asking young people to put that entire process on hold.
So it’s a lot to ask. It cannot be compared to any demands of self-sacrifice I experienced in my lifetime, much less my youth.
But there is a comparison to be made between this time and the non-military effort during World War II. Dime store novels, the books that originated the term “pulp” fiction, were made flimsily because even paper was strictly rationed for the war effort. Toys were melted down for scrap. Fat was saved in kitchen cans. Vegetables were grown in “Victory” gardens. In England, they called it “doing their bit.”
In the U.S. there was another phrase in common use, and it was this:
“Don’t you know there’s a war on?”
My father, who is now 86 and sheltering in place along with my mother, who is 85, was a child during World War II, living in Boston and spending summers on the Cape, where kids watched the coastline for U-Boats, and those who failed to comply with “lights out” orders, or in other ways defied the common effort, those people were called out by others with the use of this phrase. Dad says it wasn’t even considered impolite. It was actually a socially acceptable thing to say. A way of reminding people of a basic reality which they were failing to respect, and of the lives being sacrificed on foreign soils (most of them young lives.)
“Don’t you know there’s a war on?”
As a fan of old movies, I am familiar with jam-packed trains, fiercely cheerful USO dances, and pleas to spend 10% of one’s salary on warbonds. Post-war I love the great characters of later noir and mysteries, who are often veterans, hardened and possibly damaged by their service. Gritty and determined, if a bit embittered. Humphrey Bogart as Captain Frank McCloud in Key Largo. Jimmy Stewart as Jeff Jeffries in Rear Window.The scars of war made beautiful have allowed us to absorb the meaning of these great sacrifices.
I don’t know how to solve that. How to convince these precious young people of their own importance in this moment, and perhaps that is the problem. As much fun as I had in my twenties, I wouldn’t go back there for anything. It was a time of confusion, and at times crushing self-doubt. I had no real grasp on how my own choices were shaping my life. In one of life’s odd paradoxes, as my youth and vigor wanes I have come to realize that I am much more powerful than I ever realized. While in my twenties, as self-oriented as I was, I had no deep belief that I really mattered.
Crisis and opportunity are not strangers. Maybe these young people will get busy staying home, and therefor help us avoid the worst case scenario here. Maybe that will also spare themselves the kinds problems I had in my thirties and even my forties because they have come to understand their own personal power sooner.
Young people do everything faster than I did. They open bank accounts, order taxis, change jobs, buy outfits, get in and out of relationships with a swipe or click or text. Maybe with this enforced isolation, a sort of mother-of-all spiritual retreats, they can “get woke” at speed, turning inward and finding a deeper sense of self-worth and value. And perhaps we as a society will all benefit from that transformation. Let us hope.
It is an unfair burden to put on them, and yet isn’t that always the way? The young are the ones who lose their lives in greatest number, and so it is in every war. In this case they may not be among the greatest number of fatalities, but they will lose proms and high school musicals and new, might-have-been romances, and job opportunities, and maybe even the sense that the world remains on its axis.
And yet they must do their part as so must we all. And if any of us see someone step out of line, young or old, we must speak up, and say without shame or rancor, “Don’t you know there’s a war on?”